SCENTLESS IN JAPAN (or, why my life here is like a fragranced Jekyll and Hyde)+ THE COLOGNES OF GANDINI


I haven’t yet written about the strange double olfactory life I lead in Japan, and plan to do so more extensively at a later date. Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that the scents I had been wearing to the series of preparatory schools I teach at were utterly incompatible with the delicate smell culture, and nasal apparatus, of all who studied and worked in them. Admittedly, I had not been subtle. In my job prior to this one I had taught doused in Kenzo L’Elephant and Héritage, among others, the orientals I am naturally drawn to, but the sophisticated Yokohama adults I was teaching never seemed to complain (not that Japanese people would….)

It was in teaching kids that I got into trouble. Of course, common sense would dictate that sweet, smothering scents are not suitable for the classroom (and, wait for it,  WE ARE ACTUALLY NOT ALLOWED, IN ANY CASE, IN THE COMPANY’S RULES, TO WEAR PERFUME!!!).

Thus you find a person who lives through his nose, obsessed with how he and others smell, who feels worse than naked without a scent (particularly given the tendency of people from minority ethnic groups, as I am, to slowly become paranoid about the fact that they might smell different to the locals, that they might stink – a term called bromidrophobia); unable to express himself the way he should. Initially, knowing that foreigners can get away with murder in Japan if they just feign not to have understood properly, I thought nah, the kids won’t mind if I smell like a cake, mistaking children’s natural like of all things sweet for an adult male dripping with musky, ambered vanilla.

I remember standing outside the classroom after the first ‘English conversation training’ class I did with the Japanese teachers, and eavesdropping on them talking about this ‘spicy’, ‘sweet’ smell I had left in the room (Obsession For Men and the body cream to boot) and I stupidly took it as a compliment. It was not until I was given Givenchy’s Pi, in the pleasing edp form as a birthday present (heavier, orangier, richer) that things got out of hand, and a class of eleven and twelve year olds were literally screaming at me, hands over mouths, to open the windows. Gagging. At this point, given that the manager of one school had essentially ordered me to stop wearing perfume, I had to change my tune.

Little by little I became more and more extraordinarily hypersensitive to any comment about my smell, particularly the word ‘kusai’, (‘he stinks!‘) or in its more slangy, rude version ‘kusei‘ , and if I heard a student say this under his or her breath it was mildly traumatic for me at best. Yet, wearing nothing just never seemed a possible option for me: (it just…..isn’t). Instead, I decided to try a different tack and smell as nice, as pleasant, as FAULTLESS,  as possible.

Cue endless experiments over the decade with washing powders, fabric conditioners, shampoos and soaps, and of course, scent, but in fact fragrances that were completely different to what I would wear at weekends or when going out. To explain further, I will give you a basic description of my fundamental tastes, how I smell in my free time (when I am unshaven, a bit shaggy in my dress, rather than the well-groomed, perfectly shaven, besuited Mr Chapman I become during the work week…).  I can appreciate many kind of perfumes, and as a writer about perfume I obviously try to be as objective as possible,  but the ones I love best on myself can probably be divided into these categories:

1. The Orientals, especially vanilla: Shalimar, Vaniglia del Madagascar, Un Bois de Vanille.

2. Patchouli: Borneo 1834, Lorenzo Villoresi, Micallef, and particularly Givenchy Gentleman.

3. Vetiver: Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Racine, Vétiver Tonka, and so on, plus my favourite vetiver/leather of all time, and one of my favourites in any category, vintage Chanel No 19 parfum.

4. Oud/Rose (though like many committed fumeheads I am going off it in the current climate of oud overload). I have many Montale scents, though, and I have to say I wear them somewhat magnificently, particularly while dancing with no deodorant.

5. Tropical: Strangely, I  carry off the tropics quite convincingly: any coconut, tiare, ylang ylang or tuberose/gardenia scent I can wear quite nicely. I smell particularly good in Cacharel’s Loulou!

6. Clove/Carnation: my favourite spice, and a flower which smells great on a man à la Oscar Wilde.

7. Citrus/ Blackberry : Occasionally I yearn for a great, simple citrus, particularly with that mûre et musc undertone, such as Bouquet Impériale by Roger et Gallet, and of course the original Mûre by L’Artisan.

The list could go on, but let me tell you that none of the above are remotely acceptable in my workplace. You occasionally sniff the odd rule-bender: I have noticed subtle drifts of the odd spray of Bulgari Pour Homme or masculine scented deodorant, and some of the female teachers’ cleaner-than-thou deep repairing masks and other hair products circumvent the rules pretty succinctly, but since I cannot and never would even consider wearing anything sporty or ‘male’ (ie. all the scents on the current market sold at duty free or on the high street, where the ‘fresh’ citrus and ozonic notes fade to aggressive woody ambers……… I would rather die; it would feel like an enforced transvesticism like the tragic character in Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In), I have had to resort to another kind of cross dressing: women’s soft, citric sheer florals. Subtlely sprayed on one shirt cuff or two, or on the inside of my suit jacket.

By far the most triumphant choice in this regard was Clinique’s Happy, which not only did I get away with, but which had  girls swooning and following me down the corridors saying ‘ii nioi, ii nioi!!!!’, you smell so good, like flowers Mr Chapman, you smell like flowers………even in small doses it left a trail around me that smelled so pure, clean, pleasant; American, in the best possible sense. A straight man from the US even said to me once at the gym…. ‘Man you smell so good’, so obviously this really worked for me: I knew I smelled immaculate; fresh; godly. That perfume is really clever, and I have followed women down the street wearing it who smelled like angels, the problem being in my case that it gave me such intense headaches – sharp, pain down the nerves of my skull akin to a migraine, that I unfortunately had to stop buying it (I must have got through four bottles at least). I don’t mind suffering for my art, but this was too much. Antonia’s Flowers’ Floret, which has a similar mood, had the same effect on my skull.  I have read about the possibility of Happy being toxic, that there are some ingredients in it that probably shouldn’t be, but all that belongs to another post…….

In short, for work I can only wear something fresh, long-lasting, laundry-ish, to put in my Jekyll and Hyde collection. I have two wardrobes: work clothes have to go in a different room so as not to become ‘contaminated’ with the stench of the weekend libertine. No, they must smell fresh as a daisy. Currently I am wearing Guerlain’s Champs Elysées, which has unfortunately been reformulated (my previous mini had a gorgeously glassy, green-buddleia note, more almondy – this new version has a gassy ‘grapefruit’ smell in the top accord, but they both dry down in the same way, which isn’t perfect, but feels acceptable). I have succeeded also in wearing tiny amounts of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Mimosa Pour Moi, Gwen Stefani’s Music (!) and best of all, Summer by Kenzo, which makes me feel like I have just emerged from the sea, opened armed, like the Christ on sugar-loaf mountain statue in Rio. That one also gets compliments, as I trail through the school in sunny, wave-fresh confidence…


It will now be understood that I am always on the lookout for suitable scents, because though perfume may be banned in my school, as far as I am concerned they can go fuck themselves. Gandini, ‘Maestri Profumieri’ from 1896 (though no one seems to have ever heard of these ‘master perfumers’ until their wares suddenly appeared on the shelves this year or last) have a selection of ‘colognes’, which in fact have the strength and quality of niche eau de toilettes, that seem like likely candidates for my work wear. I am very drawn to Italian artisan perfumery in any case, as there is a simplicity, a goodness, much like the country’s cuisine, that does away with pretentiousness and just tries to make the composition as pleasing to the nostrils as possible. The Gandini scents are far from being mind-blowing, but given how nice they smell, they are also extremely good value for money.


is the first one from the line that I have actually worn to school, and I quite enjoyed it. This is a glassy, pure and glinting peach and rose scent that has the quality of piercing, mid-morning summer light refracted through coloured marbles; children chasing after them as they roll off lazily into the grass. It is extremely clean-smelling, if perhaps a touch synthetic, but I enjoyed the sensation of feeling that butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth. The top notes of passion fruit and peach, combined with an osmanthus touch and ‘red rose’, have a clarity that was lovely on the way to work, although the vetiver and cedar dry down was a little insistent for my scent-free environment, almost a touch oudhish (and thus outrageous) in that context. Considering that it only cost thirty pounds for a bottle though, I can recommend this wholeheartedly as a peachy clean rose fragrance.


Heavenly cologne opening: citrusy, floral and fresh, with soft undertones. Like flinging open the shutters in an Italian palazzo after a night on cool sheets and a long, soapy shower and breathing in the new, sunny day. Shall we meet for espresso? Jasmine and orange blossom flowers are briefly hydrated in leaves of mandarin, lemon fruit and orange, before a more classical floral cologne heart appears over faint woody notes. At the centre is a great profusion of living, countryfied  orange blossom with just a hint of the mushroomy sensuality at the heart of the actual flowers.  There are hundreds of nerolis on the market,  but this  one is classically cheering, well constructed and airy. If you know you like orange blossom, and especially if you are in the mood for  a new scent to take with you on holiday,  I guarantee you will not be disappointed.


I personally always felt that Jo Malone’s Lime, Basil and Mandarin cologne was somewhat overrated. Yes, it is lovely at first, but to me, or at least on my skin, it becomes confused in its later stages, even unpleasant. All the freshness disappears and you are left with a sourish nothing. Can Gandini’s Lime and Basil improve on things?

It can. A vigorous opening of lime, mandarin and bergamot, with a vetiver, thyme and basil undertow is very appealing: simple, with no extraneous fuss, and very natural smelling, a kind of more rustic version of Hermès Eau d’Orange Verte.  A vaguely floral accord underlines this (supposedly orris and lily), while a dry patchouli eventually emerges, all very sensual in the scent’s later stages. I can imagine a handsome, jaunty Italian tipo, late for an appointment, spritzing some of this on before running his fingers absent-mindedly through his hair, then darting out across the piazza to meet his friends.


I am not a musk wearer, and certainly not to work, but I do like this blend that reminded me somewhat of  Gaultier Le Mâle, but purified: without that perfume’s rough, splayed, commercial quality. This musk is contained; sweet, light, with the colour and texture of blue Wedgewood china. The heart is of water lily, champaca flower and orris, giving the scent a powdery feel, while a faint top note of coconut and ‘noce’, which translates as walnut, adds a faintly gourmand edge. In truth, none of the notes given by Gandini are really perceptible, but the scent works as a gentle, enveloping, and innocent, modern musk. You would never object to sitting next to someone wearing this.


Perfect, almost clinical herbal lavender as the alcohol clears, with sharp notes of coriander and geranium leaf, while the decluttered amber and cedar in the base become quickly apparent. Less weighed down than other amber lavenders, this is very pleasant scent, with a certain saintly aspect.

Yes, I like this line. What smelling Gandini brings home to me is just what a rip-off a lot of niche perfumes are. These are all high quality, well-made , enjoyable perfumes sold at a fraction of the price of other niche brands, meaning you can spray with abandon as colognes are meant to be sprayed, use them as everyday products rather than as precious elixirs to be treasured (I think perfumistas need both.) As for the peculiar perfume climate I work in, I think a touch of the Rosa Rossa might work, but the others… They are made in a country where people are not afraid to smell good, where a scented aura around a person is not seen as offensive. Where perfume is truly appreciated, and loved.


Filed under Basil, Citrus, Flowers, Orange Blossom, Rose

33 responses to “SCENTLESS IN JAPAN (or, why my life here is like a fragranced Jekyll and Hyde)+ THE COLOGNES OF GANDINI

  1. june1969

    I want to fall asleep in your perfume cabinet.

  2. penseedautomne

    Maybe humid climates like Japan (though extremely dry in winter time?,) are not really suitable for scents like perfumes? I am sorry for your experience at school where you teach, it seems that any form of elegance is banned from education scenes here. Otherwise you could teach your students how infinitely eloquent and powerful a perfume can be.
    Always so impressed by your subtle emotions, precise memories and abundant, never routine vocabulary for perfumes.

    • ginzaintherain

      Thank you. It means a lot to me. And you are absolutely right about a lack of beauty or elegance in educational establishments here. I am absolutely starved of it!

      > Date: Wed, 21 Nov 2012 09:40:39 +0000 > To: >


  4. Katy

    I lived in Sasebo as a child. The most powerful olfactif memories of my childhood reside in Japan. The smell of the open sewers running by the side of the road, mixing with flowering trees and plants. Pungent fish, wet wood and steamy water from the bath house. The smell of saki and incense at the Shinto shrines. The smell of origami paper and rice. The smell of our house, which was constructed of wood and rice paper mostly. The smell of green tea and hot stoneware. So considering the power of these smells in my memory, I find this odor sensitivity on the part of your pupils supremely ironic. I remember the sulfur smell of the volcano we visited. In short, Japan in 1969/1970 was pretty damn odoriferous! My Father was in the Navy and my Mom wanted us to have an immersive cultural experience by living in town and not on the Base. She took us all over Japan and it was fantastic. I am still a Japanophile. I am sad that you are so constrained in you perfume choices for work.

  5. I love perfumes. I wear them every day and enjoy smelling them on others. But I wouldn’t probably appreciate any of those you’ve mentioned in your “love” sections applied more than a very small spritz if I had to spend hours with a wearer in the same classroom or office (or on a plane). But since it’s hard to explain to somebody who reeeally likes his/her perfume how many sprays are acceptable per cubic foot (or liter) of a breathing space we get to the situation when perfumes are just prohibited altogether – which is really bad.

    • It’s true I brought it on myself. But the difference in culture was quite a rude shock.

      However,part of me quite likes the double life I lead. I am practically perfume Al Quaeda at weekends.

      • :)) Yeah… There is something about your look… I can clearly picture you with a dangerous bottle of Obsession in one hand, pulling the Pin ‘s protective half-circle top with your teeth…

        On weekends I also use my perfumes more liberally.

      • Brilliant, Madame Undina.. you are most perceptive!

  6. We have similar tastes it seems; Shalimar, Givenchy Gentleman, Pi, Vétiver Tonka… I’m wearing L’Air du Desert Marocain by Andy Tauer today. Heavenly. It’s taken over my week and I can’t get enough of it.

    How have you adjusted to wearing simpler scents in Japan? Are the locals really as sensitive as you mentioned to odours?

  7. Katy

    In the spirit of perfume rebellion, I shall liberally spritz myself with Pi and toddle off to the work this morning!

  8. Cath

    Another lovely post. Man, I feel for you. I was never told anything about my perfumes, but maybe I absorb them and leave no trail, who knows. Anyhow, my stance is the same as yours: F**k them, I’m wearing my fumes.
    I’m also a Summer by Kenzie fan. It shouldn’t have been discontinued. And now I’m curious about the Gandini scents. Are they available in Japan? The musk and the lavender-amber seem like something I might enjoy.

  9. I feel for you, Neil! I have the fortune to be in a French department, so I think it may be buried somewhere in my contract that my perfume should be potent and pungent. But I can imagine how frustrating and anxiety-inducing not wanting to be accused of stinking can be! My mother often tells me I smell “too strong,” which just makes me spray more. Because I’m evil 😉

    Speaking of which, it’s funny you mention Montale and deodorant in the same sentence . . . I haven’t had a lot of luck with the line and have often wondered if it is because the bottles look like deodorant sprays to me . . .

  10. brie

    have you had any success with the California Star Jasmine in your scent-less workplace?

    • I am LOVING it. It is perfect on my shirts and suit, just slight drifts that I don’t think will offend anyone. In fact at certain times of the day I start to smell like those white azaleas I was writing about the other day….

      Thank you thank you

  11. Larkin

    These perfumes remind me of Dame Perfumery’s line of scents.
    They are all very clean, nice, safe, office-appropriate. The right one on the right person can be a little bit of an ambush of sexy though!
    Also, have you smelled the Promfumi di Firenze line of scents? Also lots of clean notes… kind of strong though, perhaps best applied sparingly in your day job.
    LMK if you want to do a scent trade, USA to Nippon! 🙂
    larkinsmall at yahoo dot com

    • I would love to (and have, in the past), but the draconic Nippon Post Office has changed its rules and packages always get sent back to me now. I have officially given up.

      On the Profumi di Firenze: just my cup of tea.

  12. Larkin

    Oh wow, that is weird?! Is it just the perfume that they won’t let out of the country? I thought Japan didn’t open packages going out, just incoming… my friend’s packages always reach me fine, but the ones I send to her are always opened.

  13. AJ

    Do expensive colognes like Chanel change the potency of their colognes in Japan?

  14. I grew up in Chicago many years ago and in my memory I hated the perfumes that some schoolteachers wore, and whenever I smell something cheap and drugstore like I think, “Schoolteacher Perfume.”

    • Yea – I think kids basically hate how adults smell – I did too, though I think I was intrigued by my English teacher’s Miss Dior); I think perfume just accentuates that feeling so I have basically stopped wearing it.

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